Illingworth gains cunning edge over Atherton

The England chairman has emerged as the real winner of the captaincy waiting game says Martin Johnson across widthy
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The Independent Online
"I think I could make a pretty good job of captaining a cricket team" is the ad man's phrase accompanying Michael Atherton's endorsement of a newspaper's fantasy cricket game, and tomorrow he is due to find out whether or not Raymond Illingworth shares this opinion.

The England captaincy was scarcely an issue until the chairman of selectors decided to make it one, and the reasons for this are not entirely clear. Of all the things Illingworth can be accused of, indecision is not one of them, neither - on the not entirely safe assumption that Illy is not going to appoint himself - does the list of alternative candidates stretch any further than Alec Stewart.

So why, two months after the tour to Australia, are we still waiting? The chairman himself has adopted a "what's the tearing hurry?" approach, but it is as safe a bet that Atherton is being reminded of his place in the pecking order ("You might be head boy, but I'm the headmaster") as it is that Illingworth will confirm Atherton's re-engagement for the first half of the summer series against the West Indies.

If this, as most suspect, is a form of wrist-slap for Atherton's outspoken comments in Australia about elderly selectors and not getting the team he wanted, then it is not entirely surprising. Illingworth would have been well aware that he had not pulled off a stroke of genius in picking Martin McCague ahead of Angus Fraser, not least on the "hard fast pitches" that were mostly a figment of the chairman's imagination.

However, he would not have cared much for his captain (perhaps by way of retaliation when Illingworth began criticising the team's performances in Australia at a media function in London) letting it be known that the fingerprints on this particular selectorial faux pas belonged to Raymond rather than himself. Atherton has many qualities that Illingworth admires (and vice versa), but when it comes to expressing public criticism, the voice Illy is most interested in hearing is his own.

Atherton has been further reminded of his place by Illingworth's statement last week that England would now be looking to trim their specialist batsmen to five, having earlier said that he would not be commenting on policy until the captain had been appointed and co-opted on to the panel. At present, England appear to moving towards an unofficial version of the Australian system, in which the captain has no say at all.

Illingworth, however, is not known as a wily old bird for nothing. If he gets rid of Atherton now and it goes wrong for England, then he carries the can. If he sticks by him and it goes wrong, he can point the finger at the captain. If England do well, Illy can take the credit for keeping faith with him.

Atherton's reappointment, in other words, keeps Illy covered from all angles, although the decision will ultimately be made on the basis of who is the best man for the job. Illingworth is in no serious doubt that it is Atherton, but neither is he averse to ruffling a few feathers if he feels it is necessary.

After Australia, Illingworth will have concluded that there is no one mentally tougher than Atherton, but equally that there were enough tactical errors, not to mention disagreements about pre-match preparation, for his captain to be reminded that he is far from fireproof.

The final clue to tomorrow's announcement is the venue. Headingley might be no more than a bus ride from the chairman's home in Farsley, but more significant is the fact that Atherton will also be there, having yesterday hit 129 for Lancashire in the friendly against Yorkshire.